Successful societies run on trust, but trust in America’s institutions and electoral system is in the pits. Partisans distrust each other and polarization has turned politics into war. Kevin Vallier’s new book Trust in a Polarized Age applies empirical research on the causes and consequences social and political trust to develop a distinctive conception of liberalism. He offers a novel argument for a number of core liberal rights, free markets, the welfare state, and democratic institutions on the basis of their contribution to trust and its benefits.
I’d like to say Kevin and I discussed his book in detail, giving you a clear overview of his argument, but that’s not really what happened. Kevin and I are old philosophy buddies, our thinking has developed quite a bit over the decade or so we’ve known each other, and we’re both pretty digressive. So what we ended up doing here is sort of catching up through a meandering conversation that always hovers near the themes of his excellent book, but leaves the exact contours of its original, rigorous argument a bit vague. Personally, I prefer to listening to smart people think out loud over a book report, so maybe it’s for the best.
This one’s pretty long and and it’s hard to summarize. But if you’d like to listen to a pro-life Christian political philosopher and a pro-choice atheist policy wonk speculate about what would happen if Roe v. Wade were struck down while agreeing that our acrimonious politics owes something to the anti-democratic nature of the Supreme Court, you’ll have to stick around for awhile. We also take a bit of time to remember the great political philosopher Jerry Gaus, who recently passed away and meant a lot to both of us. Kevin Vallier is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University and the director of Bowling Green’s program in Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law.
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Readings: Trust in a Polarized Age by Kevin Vallier and The Order of Public Reason and The Tyranny of the Ideal: Justice in a Diverse Society by Gerald Gaus
Will Wilkinson: Hi, Kevin. How you doing?
Kevin Vallier: Pretty good. How are you, Will?
Will Wilkinson: I am in a better mood than I was a couple days ago when I wasn’t sure that Joe Biden was going to beat Donald Trump in the election. I’m pretty relieved at this moment. Most of the major networks still haven’t officially called it, but it’s-
Kevin Vallier: Yeah, but it’s done.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. It’s in the bag. And one of the things that’s pretty clear about the election is that Republicans and Democrats don’t like each very other much.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: We’ve been seeing people outside vote processing centers in Detroit and Philadelphia and Las Vegas and Phoenix who think that they’re cheating Donald Trump out of his second term by somehow rigging the vote by counting it. And that just suggests, I mean, if you set aside how crazy it seems. But it just suggests that there’s a huge amount of distrust among those Republican partisans about the integrity of the process. They can’t trust people who live in cities who are processing these ballots because they’re Democrats. They can’t trust them to be, just basically fair, just do their job. They really think that they’re motivated to cheat. And that’s a bad scene. So you have written a book that is about polarization and trust called… I just blanked on the name of your book.
Kevin Vallier: Trust in a Polarized Age.
Will Wilkinson: Trust in a Polarized Age. It was like I got too close to saying it in the first place. And one of the things I’d like to talk about is how partisans can learn to live with each other and not have to think that we’re in a state of perpetual war. And how we can regain social trust and political trust, because as you emphasize in your book, it’s really, really important. So can you tell me what led you to your project in the first place?
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. My own life is filled with extraordinary political diversity. I do not live in a bubble like a lot of people. So what I like to say is that I work with progressives, worship with conservatives, and internet with libertarians. So I can spend in a single day, I encounter people with wildly different opinions. And they all seem pretty decent and good, but they don’t think that about each other. And there are many people that are really kind that try, but it’s just really difficult. And the problem that I realized was not that we disagreed and not that we were disagreeing more and more, but that we were disagreeing in a low trust environment.
Kevin Vallier: I think that what’s missing in a lot of the discussions of polarization is, imagine a very high trust society. And it just so turned out that they happen to disagree more and more. Actually, it turns out empirically that’s probably not true, because when you trust people more, you’re more likely to listen to them and it can produce preference moderation. But let’s just suppose people came to disagree more. They would generally trust other to be fair and they could probably figure out some procedure that would allow them to get on with life together. Right? It’s the low trust environment that triggers people to think, “Oh, the disagreement is because they’re bad people.” And that’s where the disconnect comes from. So I think the real problem is this doom loop of greater polarization and lower trust.
Kevin Vallier: And so, I mean, that’s what we’re seeing simultaneously going on. I mean, you could have populations that agreed politically, but really didn’t trust each other along some of their axis, right? Like race or something along those lines. But we’ve got these two phenomenon that I think there’s evidence are causally connected. And so I thought, “Okay, well, there’s two problems here. There’s a philosophical one and a practical one.”
Kevin Vallier: The philosophical one is all these people who think that politics just has to be this way. And so I wrote this book, Must Politics Be War, that came out last year where I try to answer that philosophical challenge.
Will Wilkinson: And your answer is that, yes, it has to be always scorch earth, all out war.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. I push back. Yeah, but I mean, I pushed back against everybody. But the weird thing is, it’s like Americans don’t believe it, but if they would just look across the Atlantic at the other democracies that they would see, oh. Or they could just look back in time a couple decades. But people are just really caught in this idea that it’s inevitable, including many philosophers. But then I realized there was this practical problem too, which is that, yeah, politics doesn’t have to be war in principle, but we may be in that position now. Right? Life doesn’t have to be a prisoner’s dilemma, but when you’re in one, it’s bad. So the idea was to write a book that got really knee deep in the trust data. Postulated, I think, reasonably defended, there’s a lot more research we need to do, and the connection between trust and polarization in the United States.
Kevin Vallier: And which kinds of institutions have been shown to help us sustain trust, because that’s what I thought would de-fang polarization. Is if we could start to pursue a trust producing policy. And so one of the things I think we need in American politics, is not just partisans, but people who are thinking a lot about the procedures that we have for resolving our disagreements, and what it would take to get those kinds of things. And it’s a collective action problem. When trust falls, people feel like they can be bad. And, because the other people are bad, right? And they are less trustworthy. So there’s a collective action problem there of trying to get out of a low trust spiral. But I do try to work through some data about different institutions, and I think for the most part pretty popular, that I think could help solve the problem.
Will Wilkinson: Great. Well let’s define some terms. I think everybody at this point largely understands what polarization is, but there’s a couple different flavors of polarization. So on the one hand there’s polarization in Congress, say like where on a right-left dimension, Republicans and Democrats have gotten further and further apart in the issue space [crosstalk 00:09:11]. They vote with one another across the aisle less and less. And so that’s one kind of polarized divergence. But that’s a function of a lot of things, but it doesn’t necessarily say what people quite think it says, partly because it’s just some of it’s a function of the way the incentive that leadership has to keep people in line, to control the agenda in a way that only puts things on the agenda that all of the members of their caucus will vote for, and none of the members of the other.
Will Wilkinson: And so some of those, like DW nominate scores are a function of ephemeral incentives. But the broader notion that I think people experience in their real life has to do with partisanship becoming a very internalized part of people’s identities, and an increasing sense of contempt and animosity for people on the other side. And so that’s called affective polarization.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. Yeah, by affect. Right. By emotion and tribal attitudes and resentment and indignation, and all that stuff. Yeah. So there’s issue-based polarization, there’s affect-based polarization. And then there’s sorting, which is different, right? So you could have issue-based polarization or affect-based polarization implies people are changing their views, or changing how they feel. But sorting, people are moving around they’re creating social bubbles. So you could do it based on issues, you could do it based on affect. And I call all four of those phenomena partisan diversion. So I think they’re all going on, but I don’t know exactly what’s the proportions. There’s also another dimension, which is how much of it is an elite phenomenon, and how much of it it is a popular phenomenon?
Will Wilkinson: Yes.
Kevin Vallier: And my basic view there is that it’s worst at the top, and it becomes less bad as you go to the bottom. So it’s not exclusively an elite problem. It’s not a big problem among most Americans. But as you get more highly educated and you get more political clout, then the degree of polarization gets worse. And I think the more you see of the political identity. And this is partly, I think, a function of secularization. I think a lot of people want to have a deep identity, but many of the elites don’t feel like traditional religious views are very credible. And so I think it’s easier to say, “Well, I mean, social justice really matters to me, and this is about the best we can hope for in the world. And I’m behind it. And I want to fight for equality.” Right?
Kevin Vallier: So I’m not saying this is necessarily a pernicious thing. People value stuff, and different generations and different groups of people value different things. So yeah, I think there is this phenomenon of people identifying politically, I think it tends to be elite phenomenon. So yes, worst at the top, not that much at the bottom. There’s a lot of overlap. But that’s how I think about it.
Will Wilkinson: I mean, one of the things that I run into, I’m a vice president of a think tank. I do political analysis all the time. I write for the New York Times. I’ve got friends who want me to tell them about politics and policy. And do you see there’s a big divergence between the… And I live in a college town, my wife is a professor. Most of our friends are people with many advanced degrees. They’re smart people, and they’re well-informed, and I think you would call them elite in one sense. But their model of how politics works is quite a bit different from the prevailing model of political behavior in political science. And there’s just a lot of a lack of awareness of some of these basic facts. People think that how they decide what party they’re going to identify with is that you go and look at the menu of issues and see, oh, I agree with this and this and this, and check, check, check.
Will Wilkinson: Oh, but I agree with that. And you just weigh it out. And you’re like, ah, I guess I agree with more Republican positions than Democrat. That is absolutely not how it works.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. You have to know the procedural rules to predict outcomes. And you can’t just pick them on the menu, because if the rules change, the outcomes can change wildly. If we had a parliamentary system, proportional representation, some combination of those things, I think there’d be a much bigger middle. You’d have probably more than two parties, even if the other parties were smaller, just looking at other democracies. And that would be a very different process. So one of the things I like about parliamentary democracy, imagine if Republicans and Democrats had to publicly go into coalition with each other. And they had to say, “Oh, you’ll get this cabinet position, and I’ll get that one.” Can you imagine how healing that would be relative to what we do? I mean, the underlying preferences might be the same, but the way they get expressed is determined to a huge amount about how we vote.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. So just the electoral system structures, parties, and party’s structure, political identity, and positions. And that’s the thing, that’s, I think, the main thing that just the folk view of politics gets wrong. Is that people choose, and there’s a great book that you reference Achen and Bartels’s [crosstalk 00:15:06] Democracy for Realists. And people differ around the edges about how to understand this. But I do think it’s basically true that, first of all, people just, whatever social identity is most salient to you, like how you identify, what you think of yourself as. And then you look around and, which party is the party for people like me? And then you sort yourself into that party. And then you get views about issues.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. Yeah, a lot of people.
Will Wilkinson: Like, people don’t become Democrats because they want to raise the minimum wage. They want to raise the minimum wage because they became a Democrat. Right? And people don’t like that, don’t like to think of themselves in that way because it suggests that you’re not forming your opinions on issues in a [crosstalk 00:16:00] an autonomous way. But the evidence is really strong. And the thing that’s, and why I think you’re saying that you think it’s more of an elite phenomenon, that polarization, is because this is the second thing that lots of people really don’t understand. Which is that most people don’t tune into politics at all. Most people have very, very little knowledge of just basic political facts. They don’t know things about our constitution, the way the electoral system works, which party favors which issue position.
Will Wilkinson: And the great mass of the electorate isn’t ideological in any recognizable way. Like Converse called ideologically innocent. And basically it’s just because most people just have a potpourri of views that they’ve picked up here and there, and they don’t hang together in any… Like, I’m against abortion. I really like nationalized healthcare. Just, it’s all over the map. My sister got shot, I hate guns. I want gun control. They’re not forming their attachments based on issues. Still in so far as they vote, they tend to just sort on identity. What are the people around me doing? And okay, I live in a small town, and people have a relatively low level of education. Everybody’s white. I’m a Republican. That’s how it works. And so you vote for Republicans in a pretty consistent way, but it’s not necessarily because Republicans reflect your views. But-
Kevin Vallier: Might just because your dad did. I mean, there’s a huge generational level of influence. You’re like my family, my father was Republican, and all my family is Republican or Democrat, or whatever. So then, yeah, there’s lots of different ways in which groupishness works. And this is the role. I mean, this is to give a little bit of credit to the conservative political tradition, but the elites have a very big role in influencing the direction in which things go. And I don’t want to say they are natural elites, but there are from our people that are just more interested in the leavers of power and how things work and have more time to think about them. And you could call them elites just because, I guess elite can just refer to having more power. But-
Will Wilkinson: Well, it’s just true that there’s a huge amount of inequality in how much influence people have over the political system.
Kevin Vallier: That’s right.
Will Wilkinson: So if you are a politician and you get a vote, you have power that other people don’t have. If you’re a high ranking official in one of the federal bureaucracies, you have a great deal of power that other people don’t have. But also, if you are the editor of the New York Times opinion page, you have a great amount of power in terms of influencing what other people think. And so there are elites along that dimension, and those people do shape people’s opinions. They shape the menu of options that are available.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah, [inaudible 00:19:10].
Will Wilkinson: But so the people who tune into politics, it’s like polarization is strongest among highly engaged, highly informed people. The more you’ve tuned in, the more virulently partisan you’re likely to be. And the closer your views are likely to track the platform of your party. Right? The example that I like to give about that is that the more education a Republican has, the more likely they are to deny the reality of climate change.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. I didn’t know it worked quite like that. Yeah. I guess it’s not surprising at all.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. And isn’t that interesting. But that’s just because that’s the party’s view.
Kevin Vallier: And it’s important for the group, the elites are group-ish too, right? But there’s this process of opinion formation that happens among them. And the views that they have don’t necessarily fit together in a logical way. And of course, people use their reasoning faculties to back up the beliefs that they already hold. But my goodness, Will, we’ve got to be careful not to be the Jason Brennan and Brian Caplan and so on. So we should probably say why we both like democracy before we’re too hard on everybody.
Will Wilkinson: I’m not saying anything bad about democracy. I’m just saying, this is the prevailing view of political behavior. And that I think is broadly true. I don’t think any of this is bad, it’s just the way it is.
Kevin Vallier: Yes. Yes. But I think a lot of people, if you hear that, you hear a group theory of politics, I think people are… Like, I think that’s disappointing to people. And I think some people say, “Well, if your beliefs are based on stupid things, then why would it be good to give people votes?” Right? And I think what you and I think is, first there are the instrumental reasons, right? Just the democracies just tend to function better in part because you can throw the [bums 00:21:19] out. But it also, I think for both of us, there’s a respect based argument too. Which is, you have a choice, people’s judgments are going to filter into politics and it’s which group you choose to allow input.
Kevin Vallier: And it’s just fairer to allow more people and people to have roughly equal influence, and instead of excluding certain people. I mean, even if you think that this is the process of opinion formation, and that’s just the reality, you can still be a pretty strong, small D, small D Democrat. Both for the consequence based or instrumental reasons, and for the fairness based reasons. So I just thought we would say that, because… Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Absolutely. Because my own views about democracy, I’ve become enthusiastic about democracy-
Kevin Vallier: Me too. More so, yeah.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, over the last few years. And one of the reasons is that it becomes clearer and clearer to me that I used to have a very strong theory, sort of a priori theory of rights. That there are rights that people have, and they ought to be respected, blah, blah, blah. But it’s really easy to say that people have particular rights, but it’s not easy to get a system that recognizes and protects those rights.
Kevin Vallier: Yes, yes. And you all know that’s true. Yeah, that’s the theme of a lot of Jerry’s work is you can make up rights… Sorry, we should probably talk about who Jerry is. Jerry Gaus is a philosopher, University of Arizona. He was my dissertation advisor. And he liked you, and cited the book, The Order of Public Reason, [inaudible 00:23:02]. But he worked a lot on questions about how people can maintain basic moral relationships with one another, despite deeply disagreeing. So there was no attempt among Gaus, like many people in the liberal tradition and in political philosophy to try to say, “Oh, look, only certain views are reasonable. And there’s only certain kinds of diversity we should care about, we should care about at all.”
Kevin Vallier: And so, yeah, there’s this broader problem. Like for instance, with religion we know it’s a problem, right? It’s just like, look, here’s my religion. It’s true. So we should be the boss of that. Or we know, well here’s your theory of the good life. Right? Suppose you just have a standard secular enlightenment type view. We’re starting to get Rawls’s point that that’s just the religion thing. But the thing that Jerry convinced me of when I was a 22 year old libertarian, when we first met in 2006, was that actually libertarianism is structurally parallel to those views. Right? You can just say, here are the rights. And here are the rights there are, but then other people have different theories of rights.
Kevin Vallier: And so they’re going to clash in exactly the same way that Protestants and Catholics do. And so what you really need in a political system is a way of recognizing rights when people dispute what they are. And the rights theories are useful in the sense that they can give you a general sense of when things have gotten really out of whack. But in terms of actually solving concrete problems, they’re not anywhere near as useful as I thought they were. In part because I now think morality has a point in a way, in the sense of helping us solve problems. And so that’s a, I think, probably something that we’re simpatico on. Because the more you get focused on how actual people actually cooperate, the more of these philosophical issues you think, wow, the philosophical theorizing might actually be taking me away from actually reconciling people in the real world.
Will Wilkinson: Yes, exactly. Just, like philosophical, ideological views just tend toward dogmatism. And dogmatism tends to be, I’m not sure the right word, I’m going to say apolitical. That you feel like when you’ve identified the one true theory of justice, or the one true slate of rights, that you get a means justifies the end mentality about just doing what it takes to beat the other guys and implement the system that justice, morality, divine law, whatever it is, is required. And that just causes conflict. It’s not a way of coordinating your behavior. I mean, I think most people understand that liberalism, as a tradition, begins with the European wars of religion. Where you get sectarian strife that becomes impossible to live with. Protestants and Catholics are killing each other. And there’s just no way to deal with it. And at some point they just had to be, we have to live together. Right?
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. And one thing I’d add to this, just bring some of Jerry’s work in. I just introduced one I knew that you’re familiar with, but one that’s in the last book that’s coming out you’ll actually find pretty interesting. The first idea is what we call a public justification. And the way I understand the concept, is that what we try to do in politics, or the best thing, best politics, is when we try to find laws or policies or institutional structures that can be justified by each person’s likes. Each person can see the point of them based on their own values and perspectives. Right? So you can have a theory about whatever the best is, that’s perfectly fine. But if you actually want to cooperate with people, if you want to do something more than be at odds, you need to make proposals that they can see the point of, at least on some degree of reflection.
Kevin Vallier: So it’s a public justification in this. In John Rawls’s sense, it had to do with shared values. But Gaus was far friendlier to, Jerry Gaus was far friendlier to diversity. And in fact, when he died a few months ago, he was working on something that a lot of his students, including me, have picked up on. What we call the new diversity theory. And in the diversity theory, what we do is we see diversity as a resource for solving problems rather than as a threat to solving problems. Because there’s familiar John Stuart Mill type reasons about experimentation. But here’s an idea Gerry was working on just this year, which is the rate and nature of diversity over time. So he was working out an idea he called auto catalytic diversity. Where he says that what happens is that diversity invents new social niches, and those social niches create new kinds of diversity.
Kevin Vallier: And the process seems like it’s accelerating. So it’s not just that we disagree, it’s that we identify more kinds of disagreement, more kinds of views that you might hold. So think about Twitter versus just the newspaper system 100 years ago, right? I mean, this is a system of diversity and disagreement that moves extremely quickly, right? And you’ve got all these weird little sub-communities, Catholic integralists, to all the different kinds of communists on the left, the China [tankies 00:28:40], just all kinds of weird little groups. And so particularly, if it’s the case that diversity isn’t just natural to human beings, and this is something I don’t take on in the book, but Gerry argues actually moral diversity is a part of human nature, not in a metaphysical sense, but in the sense that he even thinks that in the deep past, like tens of thousands of years ago, moral diversity is a theme.
Kevin Vallier: So human beings just tend to disagree. And the more stable and open your institutions are, the more that’s going to happen. But the only way to solve these problems is to appeal to solutions that can be justified in different people’s perspectives, because otherwise these forces diverse you, you’re just going to rip societies to pieces. Or, you’re going to have to be like China, and you’re just going to have to ruthlessly suppress imprison and kill people, and propagandize them heavily. And then you’re going to get into democidal kinds of just mass murdering your own citizens.
Will Wilkinson: And we don’t want that.
Kevin Vallier: No. Because, yeah.
Will Wilkinson: So we got to find a way to disagree agreeably.
Kevin Vallier: Yes. Right.
Will Wilkinson: And we need to have a way to make diversity into a resource rather than a curse. And that’s a big theme of Jerry’s work. I’ll back up a second. Jerry Gaus was a philosopher at the University of Arizona. He was one of the great political philosophers of his time, not broadly known outside of philosophical circles, but just an incredibly important thinker. He was a friend of mine and a huge influence on my thinking. It’s actually funny, right now, my monitor is sitting on top of the hardcover of The Order of Public Reason, because it’s so fat it lifts it up. So I’ve got a Jerry Gaus book holding up the monitor I’m looking at right now. It’s a splendid book.
Kevin Vallier: But it’s complex. I mean, it’s a whole new… It’s like, in my opinion, it’s the best work of political philosophy in the 21st century so far. And I think I’m teaching it right now to my graduate seminar after teaching Rawls’s Political Liberalism. And I’m just like, I know I was his student, but man, this book is just way better argued. It’s really remarkable. But the thing for Jerry was that he was a ideology phobe. And he really, really, really hated it. And what he’s doing in that book, which is his magnum opus, is trying to use the tools of the social sciences in order to help us figure out how to solve certain kinds of diverse disagreements.
Kevin Vallier: And that requires the tools of things like evolutionary theory about how humans learned to cooperate, or evolved to cooperate, game theory. Theories of practical rationality. And he just learned all of it, and then just built it all into this treatise. And so it’s demanding for the reader because everyone, he even says in the preface, everyone goes in and there’s going to be something they don’t know. So that’s why it can be a challenge. Which is why I’m going to actually put my lectures on The Order of Public Reason on YouTube when I’m done.
Will Wilkinson: That would be terrific. Yeah. Book had a tremendous influence on me. It’s a classical liberal book, but it’s a little bit Rawlsian, a little bit [Hayekian 00:00:32:07].
Kevin Vallier: Yep.
Will Wilkinson: It just melds a bunch of things together in a incredibly sophisticated way. His penultimate book, The Tyranny of the Ideal, was also a big influence on me. It really did was the… I was getting there myself anyway, but for me it was the final nail in the coffin of what philosophers call ideal theory. An ideal theory is a theory of perfect justice. The idea that what you should do as a political philosopher when you’re coming up with something like a theory of justice, is that you’re trying to create a picture of the ideal society.
Will Wilkinson: And the function of having that picture is to organize us toward it. So we need to know what we’re aiming at. So we need to know what we’re aiming at. We need to know what the ideal is. And Jerry just destroys that idea, that it could even possibly be useful. And it’s an incredible argument. And it just did away with ideal theory for me, because basically the argument is that there’s too much uncertainty. You don’t actually, you don’t have a way of ranking rival theories that is in any way credible.
Kevin Vallier: And on top of, I mean, on top of this. I mean, the thing that a lot of people don’t see when they’re doing ideal theory, is that even if you thought you had the right ranking of values and you knew the right institutions, getting from where we are to where we want to go, there’s a massive epistemological problem of how little we know. So Gerry uses some topographical-
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Kevin Vallier: epistemological problem of how little we know. So Jerry uses some sort of topographical metaphors. A lot of ideal theory assumes what he calls a Mount Fuji landscape, you just gradually go from your low level of justice, to a high level of justice, just at a single little angle, right? And every step you take towards justice is a little bit of an improvement. But actually, we don’t know the topography of transition at all. It might be the case that by trying to get to this extraordinarily high ideal, we pass through a ravine, right? We get stuck in this local negative equilibrium. I think a lot of American healthcare policy is a lot like that. I think we’re just in this terrible equilibrium. I think it would be better if we had single payer. I still think a market system would be even better than that, but we’re just in a really shitty policy trap. Right?
Will Wilkinson: And it really is like a trough, it’s hard to find a politically feasible way out of it.
Kevin Vallier: I know. I know it’s remarkable.
Will Wilkinson: Once you get stuck in it, right? And so the argument is, you might have a picture of ideal justice, but if it looks a ton different from the society that you live in, taking steps toward it means just walking into the dark. You’re going into the fog. And you’re trying to grope your way toward this place that you don’t really have any justification to believe is the ideal anyway, but even if you did, you could think there are better and worse societies and you’d picture them like mountains. So we’re on a medium sized mountain, but somewhere, there’s the tallest mountain and we’re trying to find the tallest mountain, right? And if we were just trying to make the system that we have more just, we would just be going to the top of our medium mountain, but we’d never get to the best mountain. We want to get to the best mountain, right? But in order to get to the best mountain, you have to go down the mountain wrong.
Kevin Vallier: Yes. This is the choice, what he calls the choice in the book. Yeah. Yeah. And so one thing I’d say, and this is as a student, but that the way those two books really inspired a lot of my thinking is that in Trust in a Polarized Age, which is why I dedicated it to him. So in The Order of Public Reason, one of the things he says, and actually that what we really want to be able to do in politics is something more mundane than what most people hope for, which is, we don’t want to be in a war of all against all. We don’t want politics to be war, but we also don’t know a lot about what the best would be, and we disagree a great deal. So he had what he called, and actually going back through his work, going even back to the eighties, he has this idea of what he calls moral relations, and moral relations are basically where, well, I can say to you, it’s when you have a relationship with all the [Straussonian 00:36:48] stuff, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Kevin Vallier: But basically the idea is that there are relationships of things like friendship, love, trust, where it isn’t just a instrumental relationship, right? You place some value in it. You see the other person as kind of an end in themselves, right? As having a kind of inherent worth. You don’t have to get vauntingly Kantian about it or anything, right? And Jerry thought, “Look, these things are very tangible.” He would talk to me. He married his high school sweetheart, and they would split a bottle of wine at night. And for him, that was just tops. And I think he said, this is very Hobbs too. “We build these castles in the air,” right? “And then we go after them and we end up just chewing people up and spitting them out because we’ve got this ridiculous set of ideas that we’ve unified in this way. And I mean, philosophers, we’re really good at it. And so we’re even more dangerous because we’re super confident in the picture. And so one of the things that I’ve been trying to do, and-
Will Wilkinson: Well, we’re bullies.
Kevin Vallier: Yes. Yes.
Will Wilkinson: Intellectually, because if what you’ve done is spent a decade of your life learning how to argue in the most rigorous way, you’re effectively a guy who just lifts weights all day and you’re kind of spoiling for a fight because you know you can win, [crosstalk 00:38:19] yeah, but you don’t want to be the guy, some MMA fighter who just goes around smacking his mom, or just punching kids. But philosophical aggression tends to be like that. You’re a little bit overpowered and you just like to argue and you end up alienating your sister, because you just have to show her how freaking stupid this one thing that she thinks is. And the thing is, it doesn’t matter, but your relationship with your sister matters.
Kevin Vallier: That’s right. No, precisely. And one of the reasons that I wanted to focus on trust was it that it was an element of the broader kind of what we call the public reason project, or particularly Jerry’s version of it that he hadn’t explored. And it was also something of a phenomenon that actually social scientists have studied, economists have studied, scientists have studied. Philosophers are finally starting to care more about institutional forms of trust, but it’s just, really, even in the last year or two. But it’s something also that I’m hoping in time, there’ll be more interdisciplinary collaboration on with psychologists and sociologists and stuff like that. And there’s neurological components to it. There’s child development elements to it, because probably a lot of your trust attitudes, they may come from observing your parents and how they interact with strangers. But we don’t have a good theory of trust formation right now.
Kevin Vallier: But the thought was, this is a moral relation that we can actually study in a pretty rigorous way, right? Love and friendship, that’s harder, because they’re kind of ideals. Do you know what I mean? Whereas trust is something much more mundane. And so part of what I’m trying to add to the public reason project is the study of trust and the ways in which we can look at this, both from the philosophical perspective of saying, “Look, we want trust because it has certain kinds of value.” We also, as I say in the book, we want it for kind of the right kind of reasons. We don’t want to get to trust because people have false beliefs or they’ve been manipulated. What we want are common rules that people from developed, different perspectives can say, “Look, I can trust other people who disagree with me because they’re following the relevant moral rules.”
Kevin Vallier: So I give the example of a traffic system, right? People in different cars, going to different places, they have different values. They’re never going to know each other, but they can rely, they can trust each other because they know that they’re in a kind of moral system where people recognize certain rights, right? They think they exist and that other people are culpable if they don’t know about them. So it’s not just a matter of us cooperating in the traffic system because we think it’s instrumentally good. Jerry has a long argument that these instrumentalist arguments, even from Hobbs, of the rationality of morality, won’t help us to cooperate. It’s because we’re kind of natural born, what he calls rule following punishers. We think it’s appropriate to follow certain kinds of moral rules and we punish people or resent them or have indignation with them. And that can sometimes lead us to be bullies. But, but, if those rules are justified to each person, all we’re doing when we try to enforce a rule is insist that people live up to their own standards, and that’s what makes us not bullies.
Kevin Vallier: So what I’m trying to say is that we can maintain trust within a liberal order because a liberal order is uniquely, publicly justified. It’s the order that can be justified best to the widest range of perspectives, right? Because the alternatives are kind of hegemonic regimes. Here’s the true scheme of the values, here’s the true scheme of the good, here’s the true scheme of justice. Liberalism is great in the sense of being a framework, not being an ideology, because it can accommodate this diversity and basic liberal rights, can be justified to different perspectives.
Kevin Vallier: But the other thing that’s cool about liberalism is that we’ve been experimenting with it for a while. And we found, “Wow, people’s quality of life is just a lot higher in these regimes.” And it’s because there’s these litany of rights that provide people with abundance, that protect people in developing their own values. So the four things I talk about are freedom of association, it’s obviously really important. People are going to have different values. They’d like to be able to connect with those that have them. Markets are going to be super important because a lot of market exchange is great because I don’t have to agree with you about your values, but we can make each other better off in a more or less free way. And I don’t go pure free market or anything in the book, but I’m talking at the basic institution of markets.
Kevin Vallier: And I think also that having the kind of parliamentary democracy rule of law, right? A system that isn’t corrupt, that’s been something I’ve really gotten into because corruption is one of the few things we know really destroys trust. A system that’s non-corrupt, a system where you can kind of, not predict outcomes precisely, but you kind of know the system works and there are sort of stable rules of operation. So you can make your own plan of life, your own diverse plan of life, and you can kind of rely on expectations. And then there’s just feeling like you have an input into the process. So the last chapter’s about elections and I just say, “Look, I mean, if you don’t have elections at all, you don’t have fair and free elections, idea is that people just don’t have the sense that they have an input into the system under which they live. And then it’s whoever’s in charge who has the right or the sort of defacto authority to direct people in their preferred direction.”
Kevin Vallier: And at least with democracy, we kind of open it up, right? So it’s not like democracy is this incredible… It is incredible. I mean, it’s wonderful stuff. It’s not the moral truth, exactly. But we’ve had experience with these kinds of institutions. We can study their trust generating properties or the ways that trust produces them. And so we can be kind of conservative liberals, right? People who say, “Look, we’ve got to conserve liberal order against these kinds of threats, particularly populism.” Because one thing that happens when trust falls is institutions, is people say, “It’s not what libertarians think.” It’s not like, “Oh, we don’t trust government anymore. Let’s have less of it.” That’s not how most people respond. And so they have an argument with them, they say “Let’s drain the swamp and put someone, outsider in charge.” But then they tend to be unusually corrupt, which lowers trust in the system further.
Kevin Vallier: So electing Donald Trump, I think, we don’t have good data yet. There’s really only one thing, but it sounds super bad. The world value survey is this big survey I do all over the world in different constructs every four years or so. But in 2011, about 15% of people or so said that they didn’t trust the government at all. But the one that was just released from 2017, it was about 29%. So nearly a doubling of people who say they don’t trust the government at all. And I think you and I both know that’s bad, and it has a pretty seemingly plausible, prima facie explanation.
Kevin Vallier: I don’t want to say a lot of it has to do with the feeling that the person at the helm of the government. And it’s not presidents have a gigantic effect on policy when they just run the ship of state as it has before. But if someone really comes in and they start violating the basic informal rules and they start undermining even the existence of those norms, by just rigorously, constantly violating them, you can actually hurt the system a lot. You can do a huge amount of damage. And one of the things that’s best about Trump’s loss is I think we can bounce back from four years, and I think Biden’s actually a really good person to bounce back from rather than someone like Bernie, who I don’t actually think would have been a disaster, but I think Biden’s a really good person to just say, [crosstalk 00:46:26].
Will Wilkinson: He’s a much more polarizing figure.
Kevin Vallier: Yes, precisely.
Will Wilkinson: And Biden annoys other Democrats because of his spirit of reconciliation, but it’s interesting. That was the theme, in the focus groups in the last election, they try every possible message. And the thing that resonated more than anything was just, “We’re all Americans, we’re all in it together. I’m a Democrat, but I’m going to be an American president.” Those things sound insipid and banal, but people hunger for it. And when you’re in an era of incredible polarization and divisiveness that people, I think, have a correct intuition that there’s something toxic about the level of negative partisanship that we’re suffering. And they just want people to be able to get along.
Will Wilkinson: And a message of “let’s get along” is just incredibly broadly popular. That’s never popular with partisans because partisans are like, “We will never win if we are conciliatory toward the people who are trying to kill us,” right? And there’s something to that, but that’s not something that people want to hear. Most people don’t want to hear that we need to do whatever it takes to get the final victory. People don’t want that. Even if our system is imperfect, they’d rather it be calm.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. No, I think most people do feel that way. And I actually kind of have a couple of different things on that. I think one thing that I talk a lot about is we have to get really serious about institutional reform. Obama gave a lot of amazing speeches about depolarizing and working together and it didn’t do a lot of good. I mean, he faced incredible obstruction. I’m not just put putting the blame on him, but you have to have certain policy reforms, but, but, that rhetoric matters. And it’s very helpful because I think what it does is it helps people to see, this is something I want to talk about more and more, which is that we kind of need a change of heart.
Kevin Vallier: I mean, it sounds like insipid cheese, but thought is, what I try to ask people who I talk to about my work is, “Do you want to be able to trust the other side? Do you even care about that?” And I think most people do. So another question I ask as a follow-up is, “Okay, what would it take for you to be able to trust the other side, short of them agreeing with you about everything?” And I feel like it’s just a very good orienting question, because people think, “Well, of course, it’s good to be able to trust the other side. I know they’re not going to always agree with me. So there’s this stuff that’s just beyond the pale. I just can’t tolerate the kids in the cages. I’m just not going to put up with it. I’m going to have a hard time trusting people who do it. But the marginal tax rate, I don’t have to say it’s apocalypse if it goes down,” do you know what I mean?
Kevin Vallier: Or if we have universal healthcare coverage with private insurance on top of it, a lot of people think that’s the apocalypse, but there’s just so many countries that have done it, and many of them are freer in various ways than we are. And people don’t like to hear that. And I think there are also things on both sides. So one thing that you find in high-trust countries Sweden is it’s much easier for them to deregulate because it turns out when you’re low trust, you want to control people, because you think if you look away, they’re going to get out of line.
Kevin Vallier: So this is why. There’s this great Swedish economist, Andreas Burg, who had this history of Swedish public policy on the construction of the capitalist welfare state. It is great. And it’s not even that long. Sweden is the highest risk country in the world, and they’ve made these gigantic policy shifts. People don’t understand how much their public policy’s changed, but they went through democratic, not like central planning or anything, but on a democratically socialist order, and then they just backed off of it. They just said, “Look, we’re still going to have a lot of redistribution.” As Andreas says, “Swedes redistribute from the top 90% to the bottom 90%.” And you can just make an argument and then people will say, “Yeah, I don’t agree with that. But then you vote and then you go back to ordinary life.
Kevin Vallier: And what you see is that it’s also the case that when you’re high trust, you mind redistribution less because you’re not worried about people wasting it. It’s all our cheater detection modules, just not getting set off. And so one of the most dangerous things about being in a low trust environment is that neither the right or the left are really getting what they want, right? The left wants a stronger welfare state, but when trust is low, less people are going to go for it, because they think…. you know the urban legends about people buying lobsters with [crosstalk 00:51:31]. And then on the other side, the Democrats were like, “Well, if you deregulate, they’re going to be super, super evil.” Or you propose a tax cut and then the Democrats just say, “This is a handout to the rich.” But the Swedish propose a tax cut to themselves and they say, “Oh, yeah, maybe the tax rates should go down.” They’ve reduced tax rates dramatically, dramatically. There’ve been movements in the marginal tax rate in Sweden that are greatly in excess of ours. And it’s because we can’t move policy.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. To be clear though, these debates in Sweden, it’s politics. [crosstalk 00:52:07] The political part, I mean, people butt heads, people have very angry arguments about the market liberal parties being cheapskates and trying to destroy the safety net that defines our Swedish national identity. And it’s politics, it’s heated, but through all that, there is a high level of social trust. If you’re in downtown Stockholm and you leave your [crosstalk 00:52:45] Starbucks. Yeah. Yeah. People leave their babies outside when they go inside, because they trust that nobody’s going to do anything to their baby. They trust that people will look after them. I think we should circle back a little and talk a little more about the basics of trust.
Kevin Vallier: Yes, yes, let’s do that.
Will Wilkinson: So social trust is a concept of a kind of a general ethos of, I’m trying to find a word other than trust, but you are confident that other people will behave in a certain way. They’re confident that you’ll behave in a certain way, right? If you leave your phone on the table in the Starbucks to go to the bathroom, you predict that other people won’t take your phone. And making those predictions because you have a good reason to, and having them constantly borne out, reinforcing itself, that’s kind of what a high level of social trust is, right?
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. Yeah. So social trust is oftentimes called generalized trust. So the thought is that it’s not trust in your family, it’s trust in people you don’t know, but that are in your society. And the way I understand social trust, because I actually think the empirical literature doesn’t have as refined enough concept, as it needs, is that basically what we’re doing is we’re relying on people to follow social norms rather than convention. So the distinction between there is conventions are things that you follow because they’re in your self-interest, like driving on the right-hand side on the road, but norms are things people often follow, even when it’s not in their self-interest. And there are some really bad norms, like female genital cutting that are really hard to eradicate, but people follow them anyway.
Kevin Vallier: But there are lots of good social norms too, like not stealing, like returning people’s stuff when they leave it, taking care of each other’s children, those kinds of things. And so social trust is when we can count on other people, not just to act in their self-interest, but to sometimes to not act in their self-interest, right? So we can rely on people to generally do what people think is the right thing. And when you think that about most people, even when you have a really heated argument, once the argument’s over and you’ve resolved the issue with the system, you can just go back to ordinary life. You don’t have to seethe. You don’t have to come up with conspiracy theories. It’s just like a good kind of rowdy family, right? I mean…
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I mean, you don’t have to worry that getting in the argument, that that other person is going to escalate to another level, and that in order to defend yourself, you’ll have to escalate to that level as well. And then you get into that, tit for tat kind of problem. And I think that’s kind of where we are in our politics right now, is that there’s no generalized sense that it’s possible to just have a good faith disagreement, because you feel like if you back down an inch, the other side’s going to try to take a mile. And some of that’s justified. I mean, I think that-
Kevin Vallier: That’s the irony, right? A lot of low trust is justified because people aren’t trustworthy. But the trust is low because people aren’t trustworthy, but the trustworthiness is lower because people aren’t that… I mean, you see the point. Yeah. It’s a doom loop.
Will Wilkinson: It’s a doom loop, but it’s just a self-reinforcing dynamic, right? And it’s hard to break out of it. I think for me, one of the worst figures in American politics is Mitch McConnell, who is incredibly predictable, which is that he will always do the maximal. He doesn’t care about norms at all. Anything that is permissible within the scope of the rules that gives his side any kind of advantage in power, he takes it, right? And so-
Kevin Vallier: And it’s crazy. He’ll even play chicken. He’s the guy who never swerved, even if it hurts his side, potentially. With the Merrick Garland thing, we thought Obama was playing 3D chess by proposing Garland. People were like, “Oh, that’s so good. They’ll have to confirm this guy.” And McConnell was just like, “No,” because Hillary could’ve won and he would’ve gotten something worse from [crosstalk 00:56:59]
Will Wilkinson: A Mitch McConnell threat is a credible threat. And that’s part of it. The guy understands strategy, and he does not want to get into an equilibrium of mutual advantage. He wants to just maintain partisan advantage. And this is why a lot of Democrats feel like they just have to retaliate. As you were mentioning, Obama was constantly making these overtures of unity and bipartisanship. And any time he would make a concession as a sign of good faith, McConnell would just exploit it and kick him in the teeth, right? And at that point, you’re just a sucker if you keep doing it, right? You’re just objectively a sucker.
Kevin Vallier: But because it’s a chicken game, if you don’t swerve, you’re worse off. So that’s what he’s got the Democrats in because if he goes forward, right? And the Democrats go forward, the Democrats know they’re going to be in a car wreck, right? And so it’s like, “Okay, well, do we swerve or not swerve? And both options are terrible.” So yeah. I mean, that’s…
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. And if you are like, “Am I really sure that I’m going to come out of the wreck okay?” And you feel like the other side doesn’t give a shit whether they come out of the wreck okay, you’re going to swerve. And so if you’re ever going to win, you have to become more reckless, and more aggressive, right? And that’s the worst equilibrium to get into, but that’s partly where we are. And so when, say, the Amy Coney Barrett nomination came through and people were complaining about the norms, whatever they are, but then lots of Democrats started saying, “Hey, if you do this, if we get unified government, we’re going to expand the court.” And then this is the inevitable reply from Republicans is that, “Well, that would be such a breach of norms, that that’s beyond the pale. And you would force us to retaliate.” Right? But that’s what Republicans are always doing. They will take the Maximalist step, and then if Democrats do anything to retaliate, they explode in indignation. And so they’re always like, “Why did you make me hit you?”
Kevin Vallier: Yes. I mean, here’s something that the Democrats, I wish they thought more carefully about this because the court packing, they actually kind of scared me. What I wanted the Democrats to do was to propose cooperative moves that would solve the problem rather than any move. So I think for instance, DC statehood is just fair. You know what I mean? It’s just fair. And if Puerto Rico wants to be part of the United States, whatever, 37 other States had to do it before. And so I thought those moves were okay, whereas I thought the court packing was the worst one of the proposals. Term limits, a lot of the things that were getting thrown around were really good, but also something that there’s a legal theorist, Micah Schwartzman, and some of the other people on the left constitutional law were proposing expanding the appellate courts in order to get more fair results of people floating up to the higher court levels.
Kevin Vallier: So my thought was that the best way out of this is, you got to appeal to people’s own sense of fairness. And I think the public would have reacted very differently to court packing at the Supreme court level than any of the other stuff, right? I think, “Oh, DC should be a state,” and the Republicans said, “This is just a ploy to get Democratic senators.” And then you say, “Well, yeah, there’d be democratic senators, but these are people, right? And this is a good thing to do.” So, yeah, that was kind of where I was on it, because it’s not just a two player game. I mean, the public is a series of actors on its own. So my thought was, if Democrats had united power, I actually don’t think even if they’d gotten united power, that they would have been able to go through this because Joe Manchin is not going to really pack the court, but I did think you could get some things through. So yeah. There’s different ways to get in a wreck.
Will Wilkinson: I think it really depends on what happens. Imagine there is unified Democratic government, the Democrats have majorities in both houses in the White House, but there’s a 6-3 Republican Supreme court, and they pass a ambitious legislative agenda, and the court ends up just kind of acting as a judicial veto, but in a partisan way. Everybody knows that they’re just partisan Republicans who wouldn’t have been nominated and appointed if they weren’t. Sure, they’ve got judicial philosophies that have a patina of neutrality, but they’ve developed some big super structure to justify the preferences that they had already. This is how people think of it. We get single-payer healthcare, they knock it down, “That’s unconstitutional.” You get some gun control provision. They knock it down. “It’s unconstitutional.” And at that point, it’s just a denial of the legislative authority of the body that constitutionally is supposed to have it. But of course people are going to interpret what’s going on very, very differently, depending on their partisan perspective.
Kevin Vallier: No, that’s right. I mean, I get it, I do, but I still think it is not swerving in that particular case, but I think that I would have been more worried about that outcome, except the Supreme Court [crosstalk 01:03:26].
Will Wilkinson: But seriously, I’m interested in these questions where, what’s with the norm that we have nine Supreme Court justices? Why does it matter? Right? And Democrats are right that McConnell has violated a bunch of implicit norms of the Senate in order to reshape the court. And it’s completely within the rules. In any case, everybody agrees that the court does not have sufficient capacity to hear the cases it needs to. It needs to just expand in an administrative way to take on the jobs that it needs to do. There’s a bunch of ways and reasons to justify it. And it’s only an outrage because it denies one partisan faction a incredibly strong advantage in political power that they feel like they’re entitled to, but they’re not entitled to it.
Kevin Vallier: Well, they’re not entitled to it. I think sometimes the norms are the norms, even when they aren’t optimal. I mean, I try to work a lot on thinking about when norms are justified, even when they’re suboptimal, from the point of the view of the person that they regulate. And I think for me, I would be more worried about disrupting the norm if I didn’t think the Supreme court was actually kind of scaredy-cat about getting too far behind or in advance of the country. I mean, John Roberts, I think, is extremely sensitive of that. The question is, are Gorsuch and Kavanaugh and Barrett, the kind of folks that will say, “Oh, crap. If we do this, we’re done, or they’re going to really just start messing with us, or we’re just going to go to war with Congress.” I just don’t think they’ve operated like that in recent memory.
Will Wilkinson: And that’s part of the argument for having a credible threat of serious judicial reform is that part of the idea of checks and balances, that you have the separation of powers, and that each branch, you expect it to try to maximize its sphere of influence. And then you expect the other branches to try to prevent them from encroaching on whatever they think their prerogatives are. I think both the executive and the judicial branch have encroached far too deeply on the prerogatives of Congress.
Kevin Vallier: I completely agree with that.
Will Wilkinson: And this is a structural issue because it’s a bigger collective action problem to solve, especially when Congress is always divided in partisan terms. But it has to credibly threaten the executive. It has to credibly threaten judiciary to keep it from encroaching further and illegitimately into its sphere. But again, the collective action problem prevents it because the Republican side of the Senate or the Republican side of the House likes having a bunch of Republican judges there who will help them implement their agenda and will stop the other side from implementing theirs. So they’re going to go crazy if the Democrats try to do something that is simply an attempt to rein in an overweening judiciary, because Republicans want the judiciary to be overweening as long as it’s got a Republican majority, and vice versa, right?
Will Wilkinson: And the thing is for me, I don’t think it’s that important to think about whatever the political norm happens to be, because these things are incredibly ephemeral. There’s always at some time, a kind of settlement between the partisan factions that, “We’ll take some things off the table. Here’s what the rules are going to be,” but it’s solving a problem at a particular time. And then there’s a kind of path dependency with those rules. But sometimes those rules create a new problem and are no longer solving a problem. And so it’s just better to get rid of them. And so for me, when there’s questions about things like court expansion or questions about Congress using its powers of inherent contempt or whatever, even if it never does, the question is just whether it would be good if they did it, right? Rather than-
PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [01:08:04]
Will Wilkinson: It would be good if they did it, right? Rather than whether it makes the party that is not presently in power wig out and declare war, and say, “We’re going to have to retaliate.” Because that’s always going to happen, right?
Kevin Vallier: Yeah, yeah.
Will Wilkinson: So if Congress, as an institution, is going to function, it’s going to have to take action at the behest of one partisan faction or another, or else it’s never going to do anything.
Kevin Vallier: Yes. That’s very often true. The problem is that, I think that’s another kind of, I think it is another kind of doom loop. And I think there have to be ways of writing things in, like for instance, passing legislation that restricts the power of the Supreme Court, rather than increasing the number. Now, if you just say, “Well, it’s divided government.” But if our supposition of it is democratic control. Another worry with this is just that it’s just-
Will Wilkinson: Well, how about that?
Kevin Vallier: … Republic… Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: Because again, that’s another proposal for court reform is that Congress has the authority to restrict the jurisdiction of the court. The jurisdiction of the court is completely up to Congress. So they can, people call it jurisdiction stripping. But you could also just, what you could… Like if you’re worried-
Kevin Vallier: That’s going to go down way easier though, don’t you think?
Will Wilkinson: Do you think?
Kevin Vallier: Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: So suppose this happens, suppose there’s a huge democratic majority in Congress. They’ve got the White House, they pass a bill, that an ad hoc… Well, this is one of the things that you can do, is you can just put the provision that limits the court’s jurisdiction into the bill. Basically you can say, “The court has no authority to review the constitutionality of this particular piece of legislation.” And that’s within Congress’ authority in the constitution. So you pass a bill that complete ban on guns, can’t own them anymore in America. And you put in there that the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over issues having to do with gun control. And you think that goes over well?
Kevin Vallier: Well, here’s why, it’s because I think I trust many rank and file Republicans more than you do. So when they talk about judicial tyranny, they’ve been talking about it for 50 years, and I think they mean it. And so if your proposal is to limit the power of the court rather than to just make it work for Democrats, I think that goes down easier. Because I think many of them genuinely think that the Supreme Court should have less power. Well, we both know a huge amount of this is just abortion. And this is something we disagree on a bunch.
Kevin Vallier: But I was talking to a pretty serious law student a few months ago. And he said to me, “Maybe doing abortion legislation at the federal level would not have produced a Federalist society that has organized extremely well for decades, groomed people from their early twenties.” Because in half the country’s mind there’s this insane injustice going on, and they can’t even change things in their state. So I think that my own view is that if the court got out of that business, people would care about it less, Republicans would care about it a whole heck of a lot less. And I’ll say this on your show, I would change my party registration the day that happened to Democrat.
Will Wilkinson: I feel like that’s one of those cases where we’re caught in just one of these suboptimal troughs. Where it’s just hard to know what to do about it. And it’s basically hard to know, and this is a question that I have about your general view is, so you’ve got an argument for a certain set of liberal rights that are intended to cultivate a context of trust. And because part of the problem in a democracy is you get disagreement and you want to keep disagreement from spilling over into conflict that’s not contained to political channels. Right?
Kevin Vallier: Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: But some of our strongest agreements just are disagreements about what rights people have. And we were talking about that earlier, that people with very strong views of rights, dogmatic views of rights will tend to go to war.
Kevin Vallier: That’s right. That’s right. But… Yeah, yeah, go ahead. Sorry, Will.
Will Wilkinson: But if you think they have, they think people have rights, then you think they have rights. And so how do you deal with fundamental disagreement about which rights people have? I know you have a theory of public justification.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. But it’s really hard to apply on the case of abortion. That’s like the hardest case of all.
Will Wilkinson: Well, it’s just hard to apply generally. It doesn’t help in actual politics. I think it gives you a theory of when it is that you are going to get a stable equilibrium, but you can’t tell somebody your argument isn’t publicly justifiable. They’ll just shrug. They don’t care.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. Well, here’s ways of breaking it down. There’s ways of talking that isn’t so vaunted about it. Basically, if the broadly Galician framework is correct, when you propose a policy and you say something like, “Look, this is something that I think we can make the case from your own perspective.” Right? If or if people can just come to that realization on their own, you don’t have to talk about what’s publicly justified. You can just say, “Look, does this with your values? Fits with my values.” This is what [inaudible 01:14:01] by conjecture.
Kevin Vallier: So I think that if people thought that was like a general norm, and I think a lot of our institutions, we do think it’s a norm even if we don’t always practice it, is the thought that, look, we should try to be in some way convincing to other people’s perspectives. And that part of just basic respect for people is taking their perspective into account and deciding how to act. And I think people oftentimes do understand that. And I think with the abortion situation, Europe has just split the difference over and over and over again. And they did it legislatively, and they have stable abortion law equilibria, where there are oftentimes a lot of restrictions and oftentimes there aren’t. Germany, for instance, has some, it’s pretty easy to get abortion first trimester, pretty hard in the third.
Will Wilkinson: But that’s partly because there are variations between countries. But a few European countries have the kind of judicial review-
Kevin Vallier: That’s right.
Will Wilkinson: … that we have. All of them have some kind of bill or charter of basic rights. But those are more constraints by convention and agreement, they can be adjudicated by the courts. But the courts just tend to not have that much power relative to the legislature.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: Right? So the courts tend to just get used when there is like some interpretive disagreement or what is the statute supposed to mean?
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. And we got to move in that direction. That’s why I like jurisdiction stripping.
Will Wilkinson: Right. Well, my problem is just with the court altogether. I just don’t think judicial review is a very important thing.
Kevin Vallier: I’m sympathetic to that too, by the way.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Because the more you become committed to democratic ideals, the more you think, I think you have to think that the basic constitutional structure of the society has to be something that people hammer out and coalesce around, right? And so if there’s just disagreements about fundamental rights so what we’re doing right now is just completely toxic, right? In just abstracting away from the specific issue of abortion. Just think of any right.
Kevin Vallier: Yes, you are correct.
Will Wilkinson: It could be any right that you want. And you think that our system isn’t protecting that right. And you don’t have a way of doing it legislatively, so you’re just going to figure out the way to do it. And you’re just going to… And that’s what the Republican party has been doing. They’ve just been trying to figure out a way to hack the system so that they can get the Supreme Court to knock down abortion rights and basically affirm, at least affirm the right of states to say that fetuses have a right to life. But again, it doesn’t have to be this issue. Like if it was just, if the only recourse was just to persuade people and get them to agree, right? I think what, the European equilibrium is very, it’s easy to understand how you end up there. Right? Like people have to figure out a balance and people don’t want to fight all the time about it. And so-
Kevin Vallier: And most Americans are abortion moderates. I have my view about the way the metaphysics goes. But I’m kind of a reluctant pro-lifer because I think a lot about how other people who have different views respond to these kinds of things. And banning first trimester abortions is not going to be stable, particularly once abort [inaudible 01:18:02] become cheaper. People from pro-choice states are just going to put them up in their car and drive them to pro-life states. So the thought is… and also very few pro-lifers actually want to hurt women in any way, they’re just trying to ban abortion clinics. Yes, that’s a kind of hurt. But it’s very different than what many pro-choice people are imagining. And that’s how a lot of states do it, it’s just kind of regulate certain kinds of things, and people think, “Okay, yeah. Third trimester abortion, that’s pretty dicey morally.”
Kevin Vallier: And so they’re going to mind the regulation. But I think the other thing that’s nice about democracy, the congressional stuff is that people talk. And lots and lots of people are talking. And then that interaction, I think, does have a kind of a moderating effect. Well, and I think actually there’s certain features of Congress, like John Hyde’s point out, like of them living far away from each other. There was more moderation when they had to actually interact. And I don’t think this is like, I don’t think polarization effects, there’s evidence that they come up even very much in small deliberative bodies. I think like the Sunstein Law of polarization, if you look at James Fishkin stuff on the deliberative microcosms. I just wanted to like…
Kevin Vallier: Polarizations just doesn’t happen as much as people moving closer together, they don’t end up agreeing but they oftentimes move closer together. So yeah, I would be for it, I would be for jurisdiction stripping. And I want Congress to do a lot more relative to the presidency and the judiciary. Because I think it does have that mollifying effect. And you can go in and say, “Look, this is a right space issue, and I can’t compromise on it.” And then you argue with people about it for several months and you think, “Gosh, I’m not even going to get anything that I want if I don’t go here on it.” And I, myself, would rather just be able to make the argument to people rather than trying to stack the court. The issue I had with Amy Coney Barrett, was actually traditional, what we call substance procedure dispute in political philosophy.
Kevin Vallier: It’s like the substance is getting the outcome you want, the procedure is how you get there. And I thought the procedure was wrong. But I thought it was the wrong time for norms. And it was very, very risky because it made the Democrats so much more upset that we were going to get, I think, if we hadn’t ended up with a result that we had, it would have actually been worse because even though Barrett might temporarily make things better for the Republican side, it would have been so provocative that it would have weakened. It would have been bad even from the GOP’s long term perspective. And it may still be. We don’t know what’s going to happen.
Will Wilkinson: Is this one of those things that always baffles me about, if you’re thinking in Mitch McConnell terms just pure raw partisan real politic. It always seems like banning abortion is, or at least knocking down Roe v. Wade, is the car that they don’t want to catch, right?
Kevin Vallier: Yeah, I think that’s-
Will Wilkinson: It’s not having a big faction holding onto a big really motivated faction of your base on this issue. Like, “If we get one more Supreme Court justice then we can do it.” But you don’t ever want to do it. You always want them to come out and vote for you so that you can promise them that, finally we’ll do it. We’ll be able to. But like now they’re in a position where they kind of have to do it. And I’m going to be curious about what the Republican party actually does because it’s not clearly good for the party just in-
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. They would lose lots of people, lots of elites. There are a lot of… The United States Council of Catholic Bishops, obviously the Catholic Church lost a lot of moral authority over the last 20, 30 years. But the reason that they went along with Obamacare was because of the, Bart Stupak had convinced, in the blue dog Democrats, it convinced them that they weren’t going to have to pay for contraception and stuff like that. And then Obama went through with the contraception mandate, and nice thing about Biden is he actually tried to stop him because he’s actually a moderate. And he was like, “You shouldn’t do this.” But it never would have passed if they hadn’t been like condensed that there weren’t going to be things like contraception mandates.
Kevin Vallier: And I think they actually do still have some real influence. And I think there are a lot of people, like myself included that say, “I actually agree with the Democrats more on policy issues on balance.” But because this issue is so weighty, I just can’t vote, like I didn’t vote for Biden. I almost did. I didn’t vote for Trump. I never would have voted for Trump. But climate, immigration, I think these are all incredibly important issues. I’d vote for climate, I just think there’s a collective action problem with other countries. But y’all have actually been pushing me. Y’all are getting me closer to being a dual issue voter.
Kevin Vallier: But I think there’s a lot of authorities, like in Christian communities where the thought would be like, “Okay. We were for an expansive welfare state and we want the seamless coverage protection for children.” This, I think, if the Republicans start really pushing for all kinds of pro-natalist stuff, and this, and the abortion thing, they’re like, “Okay. Well, we won that one. How are we going to appeal to people who care a lot about family?” Or at least the family values people, maybe those who-
Will Wilkinson: Well, this changes the landscape so utterly. And I think one of the things that people neglect. So imagine a world in which Roe v. Wade is knocked down. I don’t think they’ll do it for the reasons that I just mentioned. I think that the Republican court majority will keep having very narrowly tailored decisions that increase the rights of states to regulate abortions more restrictively. And they’ll just keep doing that, but never really quite knock down Roe v. Wade. Right? But suppose they do, that just means states get to decide whether abortions are legal-
Kevin Vallier: That’s right.
Will Wilkinson: … in that state. Before I was talking about how people don’t primarily opt into parties based on issues. They opt in based on identities. But there are issues that are very close to identity.
Kevin Vallier: Like Catholic and abortion.
Will Wilkinson: Like Catholic and abortion, but also women and reproductive rights.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. Precisely, yeah.
Will Wilkinson: Right? And I feel quite sure that there are many Republican women who are Republican like the Republican party, will even be like, say that they’re against abortion but they like the fact that Roe v. Wade protects their right to have one. And that in their state, if their state suddenly bans abortion, their identity as a woman, and the sense of autonomy over her body, and her ability to plan her life in the way that she wants to, that becomes much more salient.
Will Wilkinson: And I think you have a lot of presently Republican women switching parties because they all of a sudden feel threatened by the fact that their state is banning abortion. They’ll start worrying about themselves. They’re going to start worrying about their daughters. And that’s part of the thing where I think that’s part of the reason why that’s the car that the Republicans don’t want to catch. They just want to be the dog just keeps chasing it down the road indefinitely because I think they will… The current public opinion on abortion rights will actually shift quite a bit because I think it would actually be a realigning issue. And the Republican party would in some ways collapse, because I think it would become unviable if it loses as many women as I suspect it would.
Kevin Vallier: And you’re postulating one causal channel that would go. I think there’s another causal channel too, which is that there are a lot of people who say, “Look, we need to take care of the week.” But this is just such a salient part of that. And that once it’s no longer an issue in federal politics that their orientation changes, right? They say, “Okay. In our state, at least, we’re not having fetus, babies that can feel pain being killed.” Right? And now I can start to look at the other things that I think will help children. I don’t have to worry about mass death, I can worry about hunger, and healthcare and things, because there’s, like for me, there’s just like…
Kevin Vallier: This probably bothers some of your listeners, but when I listen to Democrats talk, I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s great. That’s great. That’s great.” And then just the image in my mind of abortion just keeps coming up. It’s just there. And I just hear them talking about all this stuff that sounds really good. And then that just, it just pops up into my mind. I just say, “I can’t do it.” And I think that there are a lot of… I’m essentially, I guess, a pro-life Democrat in that sense. But I think there are a lot of people that just think, “Look, there needs to be protection for the young and for the defenseless very broadly.” And they’ll support it. I actually didn’t vote libertarian party for the first time precisely because these kinds of considerations are becoming more salient to me, as I’m a dad.
Will Wilkinson: I really like to think it through, because I think we’ve meandered quite a lot, but I think this is great. We’re having the kind of conversation that I wish people would have more of. We don’t agree about abortion, but we don’t really need to fight over it.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. No, no, no, no.
Will Wilkinson: There’s not anything at stake with our friendship.
Kevin Vallier: Yes.
Will Wilkinson: I’m not going to persuade you and you’re probably not going to persuade me. But that’s not the important thing. What do you do about it?
Kevin Vallier: Yes.
Will Wilkinson: What structure to build in place? And I think we’re both saying the same thing that actually the system that we have doesn’t work very well, that in some ways the strong judicial review, when it makes the courts act like a kind of-
Kevin Vallier: Super legislature.
Will Wilkinson: … tiny super legislature, it causes problems that democracy tends to solve, right?
Kevin Vallier: Yes, yes. Hallelujah. Preach.
Will Wilkinson: Because it introduces a very strong undemocratic element into an otherwise democratic system where it just create… like you get nine people who they can veto stuff, or they can make up new rights that aren’t in the constitution. And it doesn’t have to be a part of a deliberative process that the public goes through together.
Kevin Vallier: Yep, yeah.
Will Wilkinson: So I think we’re both saying that if we had like… I actually think the world where Roe v. Wade is knocked down doesn’t look as bad as a lot of people think. Partly for the reason that I mentioned before that it actually would hurt the Republican party. But also because these partisan balances matter within states, right?
Kevin Vallier: Yes.
Will Wilkinson: So Mississippi might jump ahead and ban abortion.
Kevin Vallier: Yep. And they have like one clinic already, anyway, I think, or something.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. They only one clinic already. But they might do that, but that might cause enough problems that all of a sudden the dominant Republican party starts to find itself challenged. There’s such a push to push it back. There’s so much money comes into the state, so much to fight to get control of the legislature there.
Kevin Vallier: Happened in-
Will Wilkinson: [crosstalk 01:30:10] Democrats in Mississippi than there are Republicans, it’s just a really low turnout democratic state.
Kevin Vallier: Oh.
Will Wilkinson: And then other states, other conservative states are going to see that kind of thing. And then there’ll be like, “Oh, shit. Okay. Let’s just ban abortions in the last trimester.”
Kevin Vallier: I’ve been doing some look at the European systems on this. And this is basically what happened in Ireland-
Will Wilkinson: Right.
Kevin Vallier: … as people became less Catholic. And it’s actually, I didn’t know this until very recently, but it’s actually happened in Romania, which is still a pretty liberal country, but the communists actually banned abortion. And there are a lot of conservative Romanian, Orthodox Christians that are like, “Oh man, that was just a logistical disaster.” It actually did reduce the abortion rate considerably, but they had low transportation abilities.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I think the stable democratic equilibrium probably is just somewhere around-
Kevin Vallier: The middle, yeah.
Will Wilkinson: … banning abortion after in the third trimester or something like that. But then if that’s what things converge on, like so re Republican States have abortions legal, but it’s more restricted. Right? And it’s more permissive in Democratic States, then that stops being a defining issue for Republicans.
Kevin Vallier: And it becomes easier on these issues that are so like, “Oh, we still have a rights based issue democratically.” I think that’s hard for Americans to kind of think about because they think, well, look, we put things in the constitution if they’re sacred, right? And then things that don’t matter that much, we do democratically. Whereas I think most democracies don’t think of it that way. And I think one thing I think is important about restoring trust in democracy is just us being able to solve a lot of problems with it. And that’s another reason I wish we had a parliamentary democracy, even though I know it’s not on the cards for the foreseeable future, just because of how, there’s… Look, I think the constitution is really impressive, but the founders didn’t think we would have it, and it should be a lot easier to reform. Like I live in Ohio, it’s way easier to amend the constitution in Ohio it’s okay.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. If I got to pick one constitutional amendment, it would be an amendment to the amendment-
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. [crosstalk 01:32:21] No, I agree with that completely. And so I think that fair and free elections, the trust data actually gets kind of thin here because it’s, and at least in my view, it’s screwed up by the fact that it includes new democracies, and a lot of new democratic publics, they were kind of oversold on democracy. And so they’re oftentimes disappointed by it. But I still need to see studies where they’re factored out to look at the election trust connection, but I still think there’s a positive effect. But it’s disputed. But I think what happens is-
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I think you’re going to get these effects. So if you’re talking about, like whether democratic electoral systems engender trust or not. I think it’s going to depend a lot on the structure of the electoral system as we were talking about, right? So if you have our kind of first-past-the-post winner take all, it might not engender trust because that, basically the stable equilibrium is splitting the population in half. And that will tend to foment-
Kevin Vallier: Us versus them, yeah.
Will Wilkinson: … us versus them. If we had a multi-party parliamentary system that used ranked choice voting, then you get a really nice kind of electoral politics where everybody’s vying to be your second choice.
Kevin Vallier: Yep. Going into coalition with each other.
Will Wilkinson: And you’ve got five parties and everybody gets to vote for what they want, and they don’t have to scream at other members of the party because they won’t come their way. You get to… Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders are in a different party from Joe Biden. That’s cool, that’s great. If the big left party wins the election but doesn’t have a majority, they go into coalition. It’s nicer. And if you do have elections with something like a ranked choice system, and the incentives change a lot where it really matters. You want those second, third choice votes. So like right now, even in moderate districts, like kind of purple districts, because polarization is so extreme the incentive of the candidate, in order to win the primary you have to go pretty extreme on whichever side you are on.
Kevin Vallier: That’s right.
Will Wilkinson: Left or right.
Kevin Vallier: That’s right.
Will Wilkinson: And then you have to do some crazy tack to the center if it’s a relatively moderate-
Kevin Vallier: And that makes you less trustworthy in many people’s eyes because you contradict yourself. People hate that. They’re like, “Oh, you said one thing and did another. Flip-flopper.” That kind of thing.
Will Wilkinson: But if it was just, we did some sort of ranked choice system, then you want people to like you, even if they don’t rank you first. So you don’t want to be too far out there for these other voters. And so everybody ends up triangulating on the biggest group of people that you can get for first and second. And it’s just so much less divisive.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah, no, I think so. And I think that actually, it hadn’t occurred to me to look at breakdowns of trust in democracy correlations in parliamentary versus presidential democracies. I’m sure someone’s done that somewhere, but it hadn’t actually, it should have occurred to me to get that breakdown when I was writing the book. But I was working through so much data on different institutions and it was like, there’s all these things and I wish I could talk about more. So here’s something that, I think, that might be worth talking about a bit. It’s like a lot of the distrust, I think it comes through media distrust. And the way that right-wing media has been able to sow distrust in the left wing media ecosystem.
Kevin Vallier: But then they create an epistemically closed system. So one reason I’d encourage Democrats not to be really hard on Trump voters is because you’re getting to the point where it’s like their mistakes are not really culpable, because people are deliberately trapping them in an epistemic swamp that a lot of people can’t get out of. I know so many people that with all the stuff that was going on with Trump, with Mueller and everything, my family members were like, “Kevin what’s even happening? I don’t even know what’s going on. And I just can’t follow everything. It seems like they’re not giving him a shot.” And people are saying. I’m like, “Well, he’s done a bunch of bad stuff. And there’s just so much of it it’s hard to pay attention to.”
Kevin Vallier: So a lot of people in this media ecosystem where people aren’t breaking down the facts, they are deliberately obfuscating things. Like watching Fox the last two days where they’re like, “We really need trust in the electoral process.” While Trump was like over there, probably watching them on his phone, tweeting this undermining trust of democracy. It’s kind of driving me crazy as a kind of trust person, that all of a sudden they’re talking about trust when the name of the game is undermining trust, because it helps the right than the left to undermine trust.
Kevin Vallier: And I could talk more about that. But what I’m trying to think about is, how do you reform the media ecosystem without violating the first amendment? Because what’s happening is from the perspective of people being able to take each other’s perspective, right? That’s becoming more difficult because people don’t even know how to begin to reason from the other side’s point of view because they have all these false empirical beliefs. My Trump, like particularly my in-laws, but almost all of my family is Trump supporting. And I can’t make basic headway with them on issues because they just don’t agree with me on what has actually occurred.
Will Wilkinson: Right.
Kevin Vallier: What I want to know is, how do we get some real media trust? And one thing I kind of hope Trump is able to do, although he might go to prison in the state of New York because he can’t pardon his way out of that one, I don’t think, is to start a really crazy right-wing media that actually fights with Fox. And so there’s more actors in the right wing media ecosystem.
Will Wilkinson: Well, that’s like OAN, right? It’s crazy. I encountered these people just yesterday, I had an exchange with an old friend who I knew from Ayn Rand camp, way back in the day. Larry Sanger, he’s one of the, he and Jimmy Whales are the co-founders of Wikipedia. He’s the less noted one. And I came across some of his tweets, and he seemed sure, and this is a guy with a PhD in philosophy from Ohio State, he’s an epistemologist. And he’s just sure that what Fox news, or Trump, or Ted Cruz is saying about Democrats rigging the vote and trying to steal it from Trump, it’s like true. And I’m like, “Larry, there’s no evidence of any of this.” And then he sends me a bunch of links to, with tweets that he had before. And they go to QAnon stuff, and the thing is, and you can see how it’s such a self, it’s a self sealed-
Kevin Vallier: That’s right.
Will Wilkinson: … bubble of reality. And even a really smart person can get trapped in it. If you de-legitimized the right other sources of information, you have no way out of it. Right? Because then at some point in our exchange, he says something about like the New York Times having no credibility whatsoever and then share something from Infowars.
Kevin Vallier: I know. I know. It’s like-
Will Wilkinson: And then you’re like, what do you do?
Kevin Vallier: Have you ever talked to a QAnon supporter? Have you ever spent any time trying to talk to one? Because I have, and it’s-
Will Wilkinson: I have not encountered any.
Kevin Vallier: … absolutely extraordinary. I used every nicely, I used every tool I had in my toolkit as a philosopher in the nicest way I knew how to do, and I made zero progress. None.
Will Wilkinson: Right.
Kevin Vallier: And it was one of the most depressing experiences I had because this was someone I cared about a lot, like I love that guy. And I can’t make basic headway because of the media sources like, “Well, how do you know more than a news network?” And I say, “Well, what about the left?” And he says, “Well, they just have terrible values, and they’re just reinforcing those values.” And I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no. I mean on the”… What I like to say, again is just cross partisan, like I agree with conservatives about the supernatural facts, but I agree with Democrats about the natural facts.
Will Wilkinson: Right.
Kevin Vallier: So it always puts me in a weird position. I’m like, “Climate change is real. And God is real.” But I can’t talk them out of the basic empirical facts. And what I’ve been thinking about, I was like, “Well, what would change his mind? What would actually work?” Do you know what I mean? And I don’t know the answer to that question.
Will Wilkinson: It’s other people around you in your social media mill, you changing your mind, that’s it. It really is frustrating. One of the things that… it seems strange, but I’ve become more generous by seeing people as having less agency than I used to think-
PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [01:42:04]
Will Wilkinson: Seeing people as having less agency than I used to think, right? They’re less culpable. Right? People fall into things. They don’t know why they believe the things that they believe, right? And that doesn’t make me some sort of sage exception.
Kevin Vallier: That’s a very good point. People do not know why they believe what they believe.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. And so you ask them for reasons, they’ll give you reasons, but those aren’t the reasons. And so, people do just get trapped in stuff. People end up in cults and it’s just, there’s somebody that they trusted that they shouldn’t have trusted, but once you trust that person and they lead you down a path, you can’t see your way out of it. And that’s just the way things are. You just don’t want there to be that kind of person around, right? That’s the problem. You don’t want one of your major networks to be a source of constant disinformation knowingly, as a way of structuring the information environment for partisan purposes, right? You want people to value getting things right.
Kevin Vallier: Do you think it would help if just, you had more right-wing media sources, so they had more trouble coordinating? So, one thing I was thinking about a lot of the left media is it’s just so much bigger, there’s so many more agents in the system that they can kind of check each other more. So again, I’m just trying to be as crazy and open-minded. What’s the possibility space for getting media trust on the right?
Will Wilkinson: The funny thing is, I really think that Fox News, what it’s become is just another manifestation of the structural issues in our political system. Fox News wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have a first-past-the-post winner take all system. It exists because polarization exists. I wrote this whole paper on geographic sorting and stuff like that.
Kevin Vallier: That’s the Density Divide paper, right?
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Yeah.
Kevin Vallier: I love that paper.
Will Wilkinson: Thank you. And some of it’s just about market segmentation, right? One of my pet theories is that over time, not rural per se, but just ex-urban to rural places, their culture has become a lot more homogeneous. When I was a kid, I grew up in Iowa where I am now. Iowa had a very distinct agricultural culture. There is an Iowa culture. You go a little north to Minnesota, Minnesota is a little different. They got a different accent, a little more Norwegian, little more Swedish. You go down to Missouri, it’s different. They’re a little bit…
Kevin Vallier: Different Lutherans.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. [crosstalk 01:44:57] They’re a little more like southerners, they got a little twang. And now, those differences, those regional differences, those micro differences, those micro cultures have just been erased. It’s all one culture. And the thing that, to me, is the great symbol of that is Confederate flags in Minnesota, right? And I really think that rural America has been southern-ified, in a broad way, that the culture of the south became the culture of white, non-urban America through basically mass media segmentation, right? Americana became, this is a weird jag to get on, but Ted Turner and cable starting, it’s based in Atlanta and there’s a kind of sanitized version of the new south that was kind of promoted. Instead of having a Confederate flag up, you just put a flag up, but it’s still your grandma making the same sweet tea, and this is what America is.
Will Wilkinson: And over time, right? The incentives of the market, the media market, you don’t want to have to micro target lots of different preferences. You want preferences to be as similar as possible so that you have the biggest possible market to sell into, right? And I think there has been this, and I don’t think it’s quite witting, but I think the media over time has shaped the white, non urban audience into a certain vision of what America is and who they are that is modeled on the south in some ways, which I think is interesting. And I think the reason is that that was the biggest group. The south has more of a culture than the upper midwest, right? That’s already a bigger market to sell into. So you tailor it for that. You do Duck Dynasty, right? It’s always Duck Dynasty or Swamp People. It’s never about some trapper in the upper peninsula, Michigan.
Kevin Vallier: It’s also balderized kind of across Christianity as well, where the [inaudible 01:47:34] identity comes first. And the other thing’s just kind of a rah-rah. Look, I went to an evangelical church for three years, beautiful people, but there is a certain segment of people who self identify as evangelicals, a large number, that don’t go to church regularly. They spend far more time watching Fox than they do in church. And I think so there is that sort of sense of, “Well, I’m a Christian, but it’s just a label,” you know what I mean? And that’s been a kind of hollowing out. Ross [Douthat 01:48:05] has this stuff about, “If you don’t the Christian right, you’re really going to not like the post-Christian right.” And yeah. So I agree, a southernification and this kind of balderized, “I got saved when I was 16,” Christianity that doesn’t actually shape anything or produce a lot of good.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. So it’s Fox News. It’s this kind of cheesy Christian contemporary and Nashville pop country music, and classic rock. It is a uniform culture now. You go to Maine and it’s the same culture as in Georgia to a large extent, which it didn’t used to be the case. And I think that’s really interesting. I think it’s both the incentives of media organizations and the incentives of the Republican party has created a monolithic, non-urban white culture, because then that’s a group of people that can be mobilized either to buy stuff or to vote. And that kind of sees a large group of people as ponds. I think that’s kind of how I see things a little more now, and that doesn’t seem it’s got a lot of dignity in it, but it also doesn’t seem to me like there’s a lot of individual responsibility in it.
Will Wilkinson: And I tend not to hold a grudge to people for very… I don’t begrudge people for having their information and cultural environment structured over time in this slow transition by transition sort of way, where all of a sudden, their mind is just in this place where the only thing they can trust is this one network. It just happens. And so, I want something to break that spell. I want to mention too, that I think people over blow, overrate the degree to which there is this really closed right-wing bubble. That’s actually a pretty small minority
Kevin Vallier: It’s mostly cable news. It’s mostly cable news and it tends to be older people.
Will Wilkinson: Matt Grossmann, who does a lot of stuff for Niskanen has done a great review paper on how much kind of media bubble stuff accounts for polarization. And…
Kevin Vallier: Cable’s the worst of the stuff I’ve seen. Facebook isn’t even that bad, right?
Will Wilkinson: But most everybody. It’s more like most people just don’t watch the news. So you have people who don’t watch the news at all, people watch sports, but if people watch the news, they’re relatively highly engaged, and then they tend to flip channels around. So people who watch Fox News also watch CNN, right? For the most part. So there’s tons of Fox News viewers who also read the New York Times and watch CNN. So it’s not as fragmented as some people think. There is a hard core of people who are sort of trapped in this very insulated environment.
Kevin Vallier: Let me ask you something. I want to ask you something about this because of the density divide stuff. It’s also something I talk about in the book, a kind of policy reform that I think would maybe help ameliorate some of these trends, but also kind of grist for my own mill. And really, and this is something I got from Brink and Steve’s The Captured Economy, and Bryan Caplan actually is writing his next book on, which is land reform, right? And trying to make it cheaper for rural people to actually live and work in cities.
Kevin Vallier: And I think it’s going to be great for economic growth because it accelerates the division of labor, but I also think it will be good for economic equality because of more equality, a lot of the [Matt Rognlie 00:10:12] stuff on, I don’t know how to say his last name, Critiquing Piketty, and saying a huge amount of inequality in the US is real estate, not income. So it would help equalize things and make the left happy, but I also think if there was lower transportation cost between the rural and the urban, that it might break down some of that divide. And I just thought I would ask you what you think about that?
Will Wilkinson: My theory is that those divides, the consequence are very long term selection effects, right? So I envision big economically thriving cities as powerful magnets, and different attributes make individuals more or less magnetic and more or less attracted to those big centers. And over time, the pattern of urbanization draws a larger and larger percentage of the population towards cities. But over time, you would expect the people who are least magnetized, right? Who have the traits that least incline you to migrate towards cities, to be the people who are left in the lower density places. And even when they do migrate to cities, they will move to the least dense places in those urban labor markets.
Kevin Vallier: So even if you made it cheaper, you think they might not transition?
Will Wilkinson: So small town stalwarts don’t want to move. That’s it. And the temperamental personality differences that predict that the lower versus higher openness to experience is the main one, right? I found it fascinating that this is the attribute that most consistently correlates with social liberalism or social conservatism. But it also correlates in a pretty significant way with your interest in travel, your propensity to migrate at all, and your interest in getting more education. right? And so I think that people underestimate the extent to which just going to college at all is a form of sort of scary migration for a low openness person. Yeah, and lower openness people are just less intrinsically motivated to seek education. High openness just means that you’re really curious.
Will Wilkinson: I know that you’re a high openness to experience person, just because you have a PhD in philosophy. You wouldn’t. Nobody who’s not high openness has one, right? And so for me, the most important thing along these lines is just getting people to have more proximity, is one, making it easier for people in small towns to get post-secondary education. So I think there ought to be more community colleges. There ought to be a lot of them that are close to people. There ought to be more universities, more state universities, more branch campuses, right? Getting people to school.
Kevin Vallier: Bring it to them rather than bringing them into the cities, you bring the advantage of the cities to the countryside.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Now going to university at all tends to increase openness to experience a little bit. It’s about half fixed, about half earned through your life. And it’s about 60% heritable. And so if you make education a lot easier for rural, small town people, just the process of becoming educated opens you up a little bit to the world. It tends to make you a little bit more curious about the things you’ve learned about. “Maybe I do want to go on a trip to Chicago,” because it’s amazing how many people in, say, rural Illinois have never been to Chicago, and it’s two hours away, right? And that kind of thing is really, really, really important. And it’s not you’re trying to propagandize them into becoming critical race theorists at the big liberal university. It really is just the basic stuff. You’re teaching people about the world. You’re broadening their horizons a little bit.
Kevin Vallier: And those colleges are way less polarized. I mean, people think the whole academy is, but there is that increased polarization, but it’s primarily concentrated at the top universities. So I think you could sell this to the folks just saying, “Look, these are community colleges. A lot of these people, they’re not ideologues, particularly the STEM people. So you don’t have to be afraid. I mean, yeah. I mean, Brown and places that are extremely polarized, but not in my hometown of Fairhope of Faulkner Community College. I actually, I really like that a lot. Yeah.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I also think that there is just a problem that there are so few, that our economy has become so concentrated in such a small number of big metropolitan areas, right? There are huge efficiencies to that kind of agglomeration, but that geographic inequality in economic productivity creates huge inequalities in prosperity regionally. And so I think some of that needs to be redistributed and that’s hard to do, right? That requires something like a kind of regional industrial policy, because in every state, in Iowa, for instance, there is no agricultural employment anymore, right? So in all of those little towns that dot the landscape have no economic function any longer. So they continue to drain out. And the population is-
Kevin Vallier: So you’re in Iowa, people don’t know this, but both of our families go back to Council Bluffs, Iowa, which is super obscure. But my grandparents lived there and your parents. Are you telling me there’s not farming jobs in Council Bluffs anymore? I mean, they’re gone?
Will Wilkinson: Well, I mean Council Buffs is part of a big metro. It’s part of the Council Bluffs, Omaha, that’s a major labor market, but that’s what I’m saying. So the people who live, Iowa’s got a ton of little towns because agricultural economies need all these little hubs for housing and education and retail and all of those things, but those places don’t need to exist anymore. There’s no jobs in them. So people have to gravitate to the Omaha, Council Bluffs metro, or the Des Moines metro or the Iowa City, Cedar Rapids metro, where I am, or the Quad Cities metro, right? And the Cedar Rapids, Waterloo metro, that’s it. Right? So there are these four or five, relatively healthy labor markets. And then every place else is just bombed out, right?
Will Wilkinson: And so those places, people do have to go to those places. There’s no way to save the little towns. There’s just no way. There’s not. But, all of those kinds of medium-sized cities and medium-sized labor markets need to have better opportunities for a wider range of people. And that means just sort of investing in what makes them good in the first place. It’s not about telling them, “You are going to be the biomedical research center,” but it’s where there is, for instance, Iowa is very strong in genetically modifying seeds, right? There’s a very sophisticated genetics and bio, just tampering with nature to make cows fatter and stuff like that. And that’s here for organic economic reasons. You can invest in enterprises related to that in these metros that will help make these sort of mini clusters for certain kinds of specializations. And that will help their overall economy. It has lots of spillover effects. And I think that’s about the best you can do. You just make education a lot more accessible. And so –
Kevin Vallier: I’m from the Mobile metro area. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama. And I couldn’t get a job there as a philosopher. There’s a few places to get a job, and there’s some regional universities, but I can see a lot more effective investment there. I mean, I think that’s a great idea. If it’s easier, a lot of people are moving down there anyway, because it has some of that infrastructure, but I really like that idea of you can’t bring everyone to the city, but you can bring some of the city to them.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah, because it just does need to be spread around. And I think it’s a big part of our polarization and distrust, that people have radically different experiences. If you live in a big metro, things are getting better. And I believe in the kind of Inglehart theory of the sort of liberalizing nature of rising prosperity. So the kind of world value study that you mentioned earlier tends to study. So people get a little richer, they tend to become a little bit more expansive and liberal in their-
Kevin Vallier: And actually, and something I’d add is their basis for trust in government actually expands. So very poor countries, “Does the government protect me from being killed and invasion?” And then you get to where China is. And it’s like, “Oh, okay, am I getting richer?” But they don’t really care about procedure or fairness. And then you get richer and then people become post materialist and then they start to care about fair procedures and stuff like that. But yeah, the more you can get people to the post materialist level.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. People, they stop having such a zero-sum view of, “If my group wins, some other group loses.” They become more expansive, tend to see it more as a positive sum game, start to have more of a sense of, “I just want the procedures to be fair,” rather than, “I want the procedures to benefit my group.” And yeah. And that builds trust, right? And that’s one of the reasons why wealthier societies tend to have a higher level of trust.
Kevin Vallier: although it might be, yeah.
Will Wilkinson: It might be that, or the other way around that they’re wealthier because they have higher level of trust, yeah.
Kevin Vallier: There’s more exchange. And also more people acquire skills, groups become more productive. It’s actually really interesting debate though, the relationship between growth and trust, because Sweden hasn’t become any more trusting as it’s gotten wealthier. And most social trust is really stable. But then there’s the Benjamin Friedman stuff about, as people get richer, they become less conflicted. So actually, anyway, it’s a very interesting debate, and I’m sure there’s effects in either direction. [crosstalk 02:04:04].
Will Wilkinson: I think it’s very clear at least, that if people are experiencing stagnation or decline in their material wellbeing, that they start to panic. So people make fun of the economic anxiety explanation for Trumpist populism. But I don’t think it’s even just that, I think regional decline has a really negative effect on people, even if you are personally doing fine, right?
Kevin Vallier: If you grow up in them, especially. I mean, the fall in social trust in the US is almost entirely a cohort effect. So it’s not like boomers became less trusting. People tend to lock in their trust levels actually when they’re young adults. But one of the things that’s going on with 18 to 29 year olds, they’re far less trusting than older people. And a lot of this is all new evidence. And I think what’s going on is there’s a large portion of the population that are growing up in these poor areas. And they’re seeing that their parents were better off and they’re worse off than their parents. And I think they blame social institutions for that. They say, “Look, the institutions were not organized in such a way that I was able to live what my parents were able to live.”
Kevin Vallier: And so you got that millennial, boomer cultural divide and fight that has to do with that. I think it’s a big reason why younger people are so low trust. So yeah, I think actually I’m really liking what you’re saying. If there’s more investment in these areas, then I think people would feel like, “Oh, they’re actually trying to bring me opportunities.”
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I mean, places really have been kind of left behind in a way. And some of it does have to do with having bad trade policy in the sense that there’s always this promises that, “Oh, look, we’re going to open up trade with China. Consumer prices will become lower. People’s standard of living will go up because they pay less for stuff.” But, okay, the distributive effects aren’t going to work out exactly right, so we’ll have some extra redistribution, we’ll have some skills training to help the people who’ve lost their jobs. And the thing is, those things never materialize, right? The compensatory redistribution never materializes. The job training to gear you up to do something else doesn’t materialize or is useless where you live after the plant closes. So yeah. Okay, TV’s are a lot cheaper at Walmart, but I don’t have a job. My whole town is falling apart. How did this help me? It didn’t, right? It just didn’t.
Kevin Vallier: I need to update my view in light of what you’re saying.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. I mean, that’s not to say that it didn’t have an overall aggregate positive effect, but the distributive effects are really, really uneven. It hits the places that were doing the manufacturing, that got basically moved abroad. Those places got hit hard and they haven’t recovered. And people are still mad because-
Kevin Vallier: I’m from northwest. I live in northwest Ohio. So I know exactly what you’re talking about.
Will Wilkinson: Yeah. Yeah. And those places really have been left behind in a way. And I think people have a reason to not trust the system. You’re not wrong to see the system as being like, “Okay, a bunch of people who own stock in corporations wanted to reduce their labor costs so that they had bigger profits, so they shut down my plant and I got nothing,” right? That’s a perfectly accurate way to see it. Even if there were other benefits of trade and globalization, including the incredible increase in the wealth of the Chinese, which is one of the greatest things that’s happened in the history of the world, right? But still, it didn’t help you, and so the system hurt you. Why would you trust it? And nobody’s coming to help.
Will Wilkinson: And this is one of the things that pisses me off the most actually, about the current Republican party, is that those are its constituents and it’s ideologically allergic to doing anything to actually materially help them, right? People are so deeply inside their theory. I talked to Republicans on Capitol Hill. A lot of them genuinely think that if they just cut taxes one more time, it will make the economy grow faster, and that that growth is going to benefit the people who are struggling in the shittiest part of Akron. right? But it just freaking won’t. And those people see that at some level. But I think mostly just the effect is that just trust in the system just starts to collapse. And as you said, when people start distrusting the system, they want somebody, if a guy comes along and promises them that they’re going to make it better, “Because I know how to manipulate a system. Let me tell you, I know how to rip people off and get away with, I’m going to rip off the people who ripped off you and I’m going to give you some of it.” Sounds good.
Kevin Vallier: This is one of the biggest mistakes the libertarian movement has made is that they assumed if they convinced everyone the government couldn’t be trusted, that they would get rid of it. And I don’t know of any society, which it has actually worked that way. So when I’m talking to other libertarians and I know you don’t use that label anymore. I still use the label. And I think it does describe a lot of my views, so what I say to other classical liberals, or friends of markets or whatever, is here’s another example I use. Suppose you’re Ron Paul and you’ve spent decades sowing distrust in the fed. Does that mean we’re going to go to the gold standard? Of course not. It means we’re going to have more fiscal policy. The Keynesians are going to do relatively better because Congress is going to do it because people want it to happen.
Kevin Vallier: So if libertarians are going to shrink government, they need to say, “Look, we need to trust this part, because then this terrible part is going to get bigger,” right? And because of libertarians have just like, “State bad,” they’ve actually not shrunk government, and they have if we want to limit government power, we have to be more nuanced in what we’re doing, which is, I’ve gone back in college, I was like, “End the fed,” and now I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no. The fed is so much better than Congress at actually stimulating things. It’s so much better. The people there care about being competent and stuff.” So yeah, the broad point, but I really like this idea that, yeah, I mean, because we haven’t paid enough to trust issues, all we focused on is the economic exchange and producing more wealth. And because of our allergy to thinking about the distributional questions, we’ve actually created an environment for the kind of people that were fundamentally opposed to Donald Trump, right? Donald Trump split the libertarian movement too. But without getting into all of that.
Will Wilkinson: Everybody’s allergic to some distributional issue, right? This is part of the problem. There’s no sensitivity really to the growing geographic divergence in the economic prospects of city people versus country people, right? Their constituents are city people, right? So, okay. Let them take care of the country people, right? But this is a really big form of inequality, our economic productivity and its fruits aren’t being equitably distributed. They’re not being distributed in a way… And I don’t mean by distributed, the government specifically hands it out. We just haven’t structured the system in a way that the benefits of it flow to everyone in a way that they will feel that they benefit from it. And big city liberals do not think carefully enough about the housing affordability, which creates a really heinous sort of inequality within cities, and the inequality in your ability to access the most prosperous and thriving labor markets, right? There’s big inequalities in access based on housing prices. And so we have to care about those distributional issues, or else people are right to think that the system isn’t working for them and they’re right to distrust it.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. Yeah. And that’s right.
Will Wilkinson: Well, we’ve talked a long time. This was a long, meandering conversation, but I really enjoyed it. I hope listeners enjoy it. We didn’t cover it really closely, but we touched on most of the topics in Kevin’s new book, Trust in a Polarized Age. I encourage everybody to check it out. Thank you.
Kevin Vallier: Yeah. And I would say about this is just that if you go to KevinVallier.com, to my website, you can find it there. You can buy it from your preferred bookstore. You can get it for $25. I cover a huge amount of trust literature that I think people will find interesting, but particularly what I stress is the relationship between trust and polarization and the kinds of dynamics that that’s creating in our institutions. Because I think that does sum up a lot of what we were talking about is how different institutions function, economic institutions, democratic institutions, how they interact with each other and the trust effects and the effects trust has on it. So I do think there are some important overarching themes. And I’ve tried to create a book where people can go in and read different parts of it and draw on different kinds of sources of data so they can go further into this question about how we restore trust and how we can take the venom out of polarization, take the danger out of it.
Will Wilkinson: Terrific. Kevin, thanks so much. And I’ll talk to you soon, I’m sure.
Will Wilkinson: Model Citizen is brought to you by the Niskanen Center. To learn more about the Niskanen Center, visit NiskanenCenter.org. That’s N-I-S-K-A-N-E-N Center.org. To support this podcast or any of our programs, go to NiskanenCenter.org/donate.
PART 4 OF 4 ENDS [02:15:15]